“Game Difficulty”, as we’ve always thought of it, manifests in terms of questions like, “how hard should this game be” and features such as difficulty modes. Unfortunately, I’ve found that this is a fundamentally flawed concept. It doesn’t actually have any utility, except in systems that already are broken to begin with.
To clarify: the myth is not that different games have different levels of difficulty; they absolutely do. The myth is that we can freely scale that with difficulty modes or other solutions.
A Balanced Game
Instead of worrying about “difficulty”, I worry about “balance”. People tend to think of balance most often in multiplayer games, but the same rules apply in single-player games. I’ve written at length about the topic of balance for Gamasutra, but for now, it suffices to say that a game must be a tightly-woven fabric that is stable, even when vigorously tested. When players play it, and do their best to abuse it, its fibers pull at each other in such a way that the attempt at an exploit is quickly countered; not by some external dynamic-difficulty-adjustment meta-resource thing, but by the system itself. Good gameplay design is self-correcting, but only when there is balance between all in-game actions and resources.
So, balance is very important. If you don’t have balance, your game is dead.
How does this tie into the concept of “difficulty”? Well, let’s look at what “game difficulty” normally refers to.
Usually, “difficulty” determines how “hard” it is to achieve the game’s goals. Different people have different levels of skill at certain things, or different propensities for gaining skills, so it would certainly make sense if we could offer several different difficulty “modes” to different players.
We’ve always thought that indeed, this hard-ness can be scaled up and down simply by changing some variables: how many monsters on a level, how many hit points things have, or tweaking other values.
The problem is that this is not possible in a balanced game.
If you have a balanced game, then you do not have the capability of tweaking any variables at all. Doing so would necessarily imbalance your game. Increasing the hit points of zombies in Castlevania, forcing you to hit them twice each instead of once with your whip dramatically changes the nature of how the game is played, has huge effects on secondary weapons, and way more. The system known as Castlevania has an optimal configuration, a point of balance where the game is most interesting. Moving outside that is necessarily making the game worse, no matter who is playing it.
An extreme example that can highlight this is Bethesda’s RPGs, wherein hit-point scaling is the accepted way of increasing game difficulty as the game goes on. The problem is, having to hit a bear 50 times may indeed be “harder” in a way, but it’s vastly more boring. This is an extreme example of how this kind of “scaling” does not work, because you’re moving away from that optimal configuration.
Designers do have control over the hardness of their game while they are designing/balancing it, but once they’ve finally reached a point of “this is now a balanced, interesting, engaging game” (NOTE: Getting to this point AT ALL is extremely difficult and most designers fail to do it even once), they don’t really have control over how hard or easy their game is. This is a significant thing to realize!
In fact, the only way to create a new “easier” or “harder” game out of an existing balanced game is to take it apart, change some values, and then put it back together again. Essentially, though, you’re going to have to balance this other gameplay mode. It is probably most healthy to think of difficulty modes, then, as variants. This makes sense, because if you changed some values and then rebalanced the game around that, the game is going to have a distinctly different character than it did before you started the re-balancing.
Half-Caveat: Most videogames are not balanced to begin with, due to having far, far too much inherent complexity. So, in these systems, you can indeed get away with having difficulty modes, but it’s quite like how you can get away with murder on the Titanic.
Caveat: Difficulty in Puzzles
In Puzzles, difficulty makes perfect sense, because puzzles do not have to be “balanced”. Puzzles can be linear, and the purpose of them is solution, so finding some kind of “imbalanced element” has limited effect on the system.
It’s also worth mentioning that many if not most single player videogames are puzzles of some sort; very rarely are they games as I define the term. However, most “obviously puzzle” videogames don’t have difficulty modes anyway. It’s usually videogames that have some game-like elements to them — with “combat” and such — that have difficulty controls, and this is what I’m objecting to.
I hope that I’ve made my point clear: you cannot scale difficulty in a balanced game. Learning to play a game is learning a discipline, and not all disciplines are equally easy or hard to learn. Some are harder than others, by their nature, and that’s OK. Not all games need to be for all people.